By Bill Finley
Most of the heavyweights when it comes to the leading contenders for the GI Kentucky Oaks have yet to surface in 2022, but that doesn't mean that there hasn't been any activity. Kathleen O. (Upstart) looked like a filly with unlimited potential when winning the Jan. 1 Cash Run S. at Gulfstream for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey and fellow Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen looks to have another top prospect in La Crete (Medaglia d'Oro). A half-sister to Grade I winner Clairiere (Curlin), she won last Saturday's Silverbulletday S. at the Fair Grounds.
But it's hard to imagine anyone replacing Asmussen's Echo Zulu (Gun Runner) in the top spot in these rankings anytime soon. The GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, who will be named 2021 2-year-old filly champion next month, comes into 2022 with impeccable credentials, which include three Grade I wins.
Here's a look, albeit an early one, at the top 3-year-old fillies who are aiming for the May 6 Oaks
1) ECHO ZULU (Gun Runner–Letgomyecho, by Menifee) 'TDN Rising Star' O-L and N Racing LLC & Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC; B-Betz/J. Betz/Burns/CHNNHK/Magers/CoCo Equine/Ramsby (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Sales History: $300,000 yrl '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 4-4-0-0, $1,480,000. Last Start: 1st GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies S. Next Start: To Be Determined. KY Oaks Points: 30.
Asmussen is in no hurry with his 3-year-old filly star, who has yet to have her first work of 2022. He said she will likely make her first start this year in March, which would mean two preps for the Oaks. There's no reason for him to be in a hurry as all he really needs to accomplish during prep season is to make sure he brings her back at the same level she was at the end of last year. If that happens, she's going to be hard to beat in the Oaks. She may have been overshadowed by some of the older male stars that raced in 2021, but Echo Zulu had what was nothing short of a spectacular year. She was four-for-four, won the GI Spinaway S, the GI Frizette S and the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. And they never came close to beating her. Her smallest margin of victory during the year was four lengths, the result in the Spinaway. Asmussen will be seeking his third Oaks win.
2) KATHLEEN O. (Upstart–Quaver, by Blame) O-Winngate Stables, LLC; B-Gainesway Thoroughbreds Ltd. & Bridlewood Farm (KY); T-Shug McGaughey. Sales History: $8,000 wnl '19 KEENOV; $50,000 yrl '20 OBSOCT; $275,000 2yo '21 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $104,760. Last Start: 1st Cash Run S. Next Start: To Be Determined. KY Oaks Points: 0.
While Kathleen O. has not accomplished as much as some on this list, it's all about potential. McGaughey doesn't ordinarily push his young horses, but he had this one ready to break her maiden in her career debut, a Nov. 12 maiden race at Aqueduct. That set her up for a run in the Jan. 1 Cash Run S. at Gulfstream, where she dominated in a very impressive effort. She hesitated at the start and then was bumped and shut off. She overcame all that to win by 8 1/2 lengths. Not bad for a horse who brought just $8,000 at the 2019 Keeneland November Sale, the first of three times she was sold at auction. She worked a half-mile on Jan. 22 at Payson Park, which was her first work in 30 days, which may be a cause for concern. She is the first horse ever owned by newcomer Pat Kearney.
3) JUJU'S MAP (Liam's Map–Nagambie, by Flatter) O-Albaugh Family Stables LLC; B-Fred W. Hertrich III; T-Brad Cox. Sales History: $190,000 yrl '20 KEEJAN; $300,000 yrl '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 4-2-2-0, $620,800. Last Start: 2nd GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Next Start: To Be Determined. KY Oaks Points: 0.
If not for Echo Zulu she would have been last year's champion 2-year-old filly and the leading contender for the Kentucky Oaks. A member of the potent Brad Cox stable, she broke her maiden at Keeneland in her second career start before winning the GI Darley Alcibiades S. by 4 1/4 lengths. She might have run the best race of her life in the Juvenile Fillies, where she was second, but ran into a buzz saw in Echo Zulu. She has yet to have her first work of 2022 and Cox said he has not decided yet where she will make her 3-year-old debut.
4) EDA (Munnings–Show Me, by Lemon Drop Kid) O-Baoma Corporation; B-Nathan McCauley (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $240,000 yrl '20 KEESEP; $550,000 2yo '21 OBSMAR. Lifetime Record: 6-4-1-0, $370,000. Last Start: 1st GI Starlet S. Next Start: To Be Determined. KY Oaks Points: 0.
Though she was the 11-10 favorite and was facing just five others, Eda picked up a big win in the GI Starlet S. last December at Los Alamitos. She had looked good in her prior two starts, both wins, in the Desi Arnaz and the Anoakia, but both were sprints. Asked to go1 1/16 miles and two turns at Los Al, she passed the test, wining by a half-length for jockey Juan Hernandez and trainer Bob Baffert. For now, she can't run in the Oaks because Churchill Downs has suspended Baffert for two years. That's also why she didn't pick up any points in the Starlet, a race where 10 points is awarded to the winner. But none of that means she won't be in the Oaks. Baffert could still find a court that will rule that he can participate in the Oaks and the GI Kentucky Derby. If not, the owner, Baoma Corporation, has the option of moving her to another trainer.
5) GERRYMANDER (Into Mischief–Ruby Lips, by Hard Spun) O-Klaravich Stables, Inc.; B-Town & Country Horse Farms, LLC & Pollock Farms (KY); T-Chad Brown. Sales History: $375,000 yrl '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 4-2-2-0, $235,500. Last Start: 1st Tempted S. Next Start: To Be Determined. KY Oaks Points: 4.
Chad Brown came very close to winning his first Kentucky Oaks last year when Search Results (Flatter) finished second, beaten just a neck. While Brown is best known for his turf runners, he's perfectly capable of developing top dirt horses and it looks like he has another one in Gerrymander. After finishing second, 7 1/4 lengths behind Echo Zulu, in the Frizette, she came back to win the Tempted S. over a quality field that includes two other members of this Top 10 poll. She's had just one work this year, a three-furlong breeze Jan. 23 at Payson Park in :38 flat. Brown said he has yet to pick out any races for her.
6) LA CRETE (Medaglia d'Oro–Cavorting, by Bernardini) O/B-Stonestreet Stables (KY); T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $159,460. Last Start: 1st Silverbulletday S. Next Start: GII Rachel Alexandra S., FG, Feb. 19. KY Oaks Points: 0.
Has yet to run that fast. She got a 67 Beyer when breaking her maiden and then a 74 when winning the Silverbulletday in a gutsy effort. She was passed in the stretch by Fannie and Freddie (Malibu Moon) but came back just before the wire to win by a length. Everything about her suggests she will continue to get better. She is a half-sister to the talented Clairiere (Curlin), who was fourth in last year's Oaks before going on to win the GI Cotillion S. at Parx. If she's as good as her big sister she will be a filly to be reckoned with this winter and spring.
7) NEST (Curlin–Marion Ravenwood, by A.P. Indy) O-Repole Stable, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners & Michael House; B-Ashview Farm & Colts Neck Stables (KY); T-Todd Pletcher. Sales History: $350,000 yrl '20 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: 3-2-0-1, $205,000. Last Start: 1st GII Demoiselle S. Next Start: Suncoast S., Tam, Feb. 5. KY Oaks Points: 10
Seeking to win his second straight Oaks and his fifth overall, which would tie him with Woody Stephens for most career Oaks wins, Todd Pletcher has taken aim on the race with Nest. After finishing third in the Tempted, she won the GII Demoiselle S., which is contested at 1 1/8 miles. Nest will make her 3-year-old debut Feb. 5 at Tampa Bay Downs in the Suncoast S. The Suncoast is run at a mile-and-40-yards. Pletcher said the GI Central Bank Ashland S. at Keeneland will be her next target after that.
8) MAGIC CIRCLE (Kantharos–Magic Humor, by Distorted Humor) O-J.W. Singer LLC; B-Manitou Farm, LLC (KY); T-Rudy Rodriguez. Sales History: $50,000 yrl '20 KEEJAN; $110,000 2yo '21 OBSAPR. Lifetime Record: 5-2-1-1, $194,000. Last Start: 1st Busanda S. Next Start: To Be Determined. KY Oaks Points: 13.
A $110,000 purchase at the OBS April 2-year-old sale, Magic Circle was trounced by Echo Zulu in the Frizette last year, but has really come on since then. She finished second in the Tempted, third in the Demoiselle and then won the Busanda. Perhaps more of a blue-collar horse, she'll need to do more to be considered a top Oaks candidate, but there's no reason why she can't continue to improve. Trainer Rudy Rodriguez said he's not sure where she's going to run next, but Rodriguez rarely ships out of New York.
9) HIDDEN CONNECTION (Connect–C J's Gal, by Awesome Again) O-Hidden Brook Farm & Black Type Thoroughbreds; B-St. Simon Place (KY); T-W. Bret Calhoun. Sales History: $49,000 RNA wnl '19 KEENOV; $40,000 yrl '20 KEESEP; $55,000 RNA 2yo '21 OBSAPR; $85,000 2yo '21 OBSOPN. Lifetime Record: 3-2-0-0, $307,525. Last Start: 4th GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Next Start: GII Rachel Alexandra S., FG, Feb. 19. KY Oaks Points: 0.
She blew the competition away when winning the GIII Pocahontas S. at Churchill Downs by 9 1/4 lengths for the team of trainer Bret Calhoun and jockey Reylu Gutierrez. But she crashed back down to earth when a distant fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Did she not run her race in the Breeders' Cup or was she overmatched after beating suspect competition in the Pocahontas? She's been a regular on the work tab this year with her most recent work coming on Jan. 23 when she went six furlongs in 1:15.20 at the Fair Grounds.
10) ADARE MANOR (Uncle Mo–Brooklynsway, by Giant's Causeway) O-Michael Lund Petersen; B-Town & Country Horse Farms, LLC & Gary Broad (KY); T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $180,000 yrl '20 FTKFEB; $190,000 RNA yrl '20 FTKSEL; $375,000 2yo '21 OBSOPN. Lifetime Record: 3-1-1-0, $56,600. Last Start: 1st MSW. Next Start: To Be Determined. KY Oaks Points: 0.
Another Baffert runner, her status for the Oaks also remains up in the air. Unlike a lot of Baffert horses, she took her sweet time to get good. After finishing second and fourth in a pair of maiden sprints, she exploded in her first try around two turns, winning a one-mile maiden at Santa Anita by 12 lengths. She got a 93 Beyer for the win, a big number considering that Echo Zulu got a 94 in the Breeders' Cup. Will obviously need to prove she can beat better, but is an interesting prospect.